posted 10 Jun 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 9
Five minutes with…
James Renton, project manager with the Knowledge Management events team, speaks to Ron Donaldson, senior knowledge ecologist at English Nature.
How did you first become involved in knowledge management?
I was first inspired to work in knowledge management after meeting Dave Snowden from IBM in 1998. Snowden was piloting his ‘organic’ approach to KM, which combines ideas from anthropology and complexity science, while English Nature began its first foray into KM and storytelling. From then on my whole world-view changed. I recently gave up a long career in information systems to study and promote the benefits of storytelling and communities within English Nature. Last year, I became the first in-house Cynefin practitioner, following a week of training in narrative inquiry and other consultancy techniques.
Can you give a personal example of KM in action in your organisation?
An early challenge was to evaluate the impending knowledge retention problems we face when a number of our more senior scientific experts retire. Alongside the more ordinary knowledge -asset register and knowledge-capture suggestions, I decided to try a more personal method. Karen, my assistant, asked a selection of our experts to give a lunchtime talk on their life story, childhood memories, how they got into conservation and who inspired them; effectively a retirement speech without the tears. After only seven such talks we were attracting audiences of 60-plus. The feedback showed just how valued, informative, entertaining, inspirational and community spirited these talks and individuals could be. Far more productive than we had dared to imagine, we seem to have released a new spirit of connection, community and knowledge sharing. An autumn season is already scheduled.
What initiatives have had the most success within your organisation?
Our service-delivery manager was running a culture-change programme on issues of good practice. Interest and involvement was waning. I suggested using my newly acquired Cynefin narrative techniques and was invited to join the programme. We went to each team and using their own anecdotes helped them realise their own knowledge about what constitutes good, or bad, service delivery. The stories were easy to remember. The teams owned the stories because they had told them. I could see people collectively turn into a more service-responsive and aware community. It was the most satisfying, enjoyable and productive way of spending two hours.
What kind of benefits are you expecting from your KM activities?
In harmony with the metaphor of the knowledge ecology, and with some experience working in such a complex space, I hope to encourage and attract all the positive patterns (and discourage the negative ones) that create the optimum conditions for knowledge sharing, while acknowledging that diversity and sustainability are equally important.
Have you attempted to measure the value of KM?
I always take the Steve Denning approach for measurement, where it is more appropriate to tell a few ‘springboard’ stories to demonstrate our achievements. The construct is that of a personal, simple tale including times and places with just enough facts for the listener to empathise with the individual concerned and the problem they overcame. I have had an amazing 100-per-cent success rate with such stories, inspiring new work and achieving additional investment. Springboard stories also have an amazing ability to live on long after the presentation or review for which they were intended, being retold at various meetings, training courses and occasionally used in external publications.
Have you faced any specific cultural challenges in relation to KM?
Two challenges stand out at present. The first involves understanding how to manage the hard-working member of staff who says, “It took me 20 years of hard graft to learn what I know so why should I give it away for free?” The second relates to our growing collection of audio and video recordings of stories that we are struggling to get into a more formal review process. Culturally, certain employees prefer to learn by experience and make their own mistakes. We hope that our trials of the Cynefin narrative database will demonstrate the real value of examining patterns within the narrative.
Where do you envisage your KM initiatives will be in 18 months?
My approach has consistently been bottom-up, seeding ideas and creating attractors for community forming and knowledge sharing. I hope therefore that these seeds will germinate in a diversity of ways improving the enjoyment and delivery of our work.
What has been the most important KM lesson you have learnt?
I have learnt that stories are the ultimate KM vehicle. Our brains have evolved to optimise story storage and retrieval. Body language and tone of voice help to transfer the hidden messages of context and real meaning. The ambiguous nature of story allows both simple and complex themes, values and beliefs to be shared within the same story. Participating in a story circle allows a shared understanding to emerge, leading to the development of trust, forging of relationships and ultimately a sense of belonging. Learn the story constructs of metaphor, fable and springboard, and you can teach, change and inspire.
Ron Donaldson is senior knowledge ecologist at English Nature. He can be contacted at email@example.com